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Founder of biking nonprofit wants to cure ‘automobilism’

July 17, 2017 Updated: July 17, 2017 at 4:07 pm
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Josh Traeger rides VBike's Yuba Spicy Curry e-cargobike up Main Street in Brattleboro. Kristopher Radder / Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO, Vt.  — David Cohen wants to combat “automobilism.”

His plan of attack? VBike, a nonprofit dedicated to making biking in Vermont a more accessible mode of transportation.

Automobilism is “the way in which the automobile has reduced what we think and believe is our potential for engaging our bodies and senses in the world, and what we think our communities should look and sound like,” Cohen said.

Cohen said he’s a psychotherapist by trade and the founder of VBike. He doesn’t consider VBike a side gig; he says it’s “automobile reduction therapy.”

VBike offers bikes with technology such as E-assist that helps bikers go longer distances or pedal through Vermont hills. E-assist are electronic, battery-powered accessories added to bikes and include features such as a motor, cruise control, a throttle and brake levers. Batteries can be taken off bikes to charge.

“You don’t have to be a super athlete to climb all these hills,” Cohen said.

Greg Scoppettone, a local bike shop customer visiting from Montpelier, said the hills in Vermont beat him. He grew up in San Jose, Calif., where it’s flat. He’s always loved riding bikes.

“Now that I’m in my 50s I thought it was time to get back into bike riding,” he said, adding that he wants to drive it down to the market, and intends on installing a basket. “I want to get a baguette and a bottle of wine,” he said.

He likes how much more environmentally friendly a bike can be compared to cars.

“I don’t want to use a car if I don’t have to,” he said.

VBike also has accessories like a child’s passenger cart, and makes bikes geared towards disabled and elderly people. The nonprofit also has a contract with Go Vermont that allows VBike to give free consultations to Vermonters.

“This project might look like it’s about bicycles but it’s actually about recovering our humanness,” Cohen said. Automobilism creates a feeling of isolation, while bikes and walking connect people, he said.

While Cohen does own a car, he said it “gathers a lot of dust.” He rides his bike to work and to do errands; it’s his primary mode of transportation through rain and shine.

“The basic thing about VBike is to make biking inclusive,” Cohen said. “I’m not talking about putting on a bunch of spandex and looking like an alien. I’m talking about doing your errands, making it a part of your life.”

One of the attitudes Cohen thinks contributes to automobilism is the “toyification” of bikes — the idea that bikes are toys, or just for recreation.

Cohen wants Vermont to mimic places like Portland, Ore., where biking is the best way to get around. People in Portland bike to their office jobs despite the often rainy weather conditions. In Vermont, bikers have to worry about mud, rain and snow. VBike has studded tires so people can bike through the winter.

The state has started to subsidize electric bikes to cut down on fossil fuels. While Cohen admits that VBike isn’t 100 percent green, it’s a big improvement to even electric cars, which he said take up more energy to charge and need a lot of resources to create. VBike has also started to offer loan options to consumers who maybe can’t afford to buy a bike right away.

There’s also a new Take it Home program that allows customers in the Brattleboro area to take bikes home for three days, for free. Customers do have to bring the bikes back, but the program is meant to give people a taste of the VBike life.

VBike doesn’t sell bikes, but it helps bike shops develop new easy-to-use bike models. Electric bikes are sold at both Brattleboro Bikes and Burrow’s Specialized Sports. E-assist conversion kits are also sold so people can convert the bike of their choice.

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